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Right Things in Agile Project Management By @Datical | @CloudExpo

What Cannot Easily be Visualized Can Often Get Trivialized or Forgotten

Measuring the Right Things in Agile Project Management

I read a really thought-provoking article on Agile project management this morning from Mike Griffiths on his blog Leading Answers (see article here). Mike introduces the topic by explaining how he’s a huge fan of adding meaning to project management through the use of visual tools. As a self-described visual thinker, Mike admits this is “a weakness as well as a strength, because what cannot easily be visualized can often get trivialized or forgotten.”

“Plans and prototypes are great because they easily bring people together to debate and collaborate on important project elements. Since we have something to point at and annotate; discussions and agreements progress quickly because consensus making is greatly facilitated. However what about conflict management, decision making across teams, or business engagement issues? These are more difficult to visualize but arguably more important than if a web site should have a blue or a green background.“

Across every environment wherein I worked in some management capacity, ranging from conducting military operations in the heat and dust of Iraq to building an enterprise software company from the ground up, I’ve found it useful to build a visual tool when discussing new concepts or ideas. The medium has never been that important – I’ve sketched out plans on the back of an MRE box and used rocks in lieu of chalk to draw concepts on the hood of my Humvee for discussion with my soldiers, spent hours perfecting a set of slides to brief four-star generals, and drawn out straw men proposals on my white board to explain ideas at Datical. The point of these activities is echoed by Mike – “Since we have something to point at and annotate; discussions and agreements progress quickly because consensus making is greatly facilitated.”

It’s incredibly difficult to build or reach consensus around new concepts while remaining in the abstract. Humans are extremely visual creatures – supporting evidence of this can be found in the fact that humans have some of the most highly evolved eyeballs found in the entire animal kingdom. The process of sketching out a new concept for discussion is what I like to call “throwing a stake in the ground.” The concept becomes firmly planted, takes material shape, serves as a point of reference, and facilitates conversation. Once the stake is thrown, changes can be made, it can be moved, it can be scrapped altogether in favor of a different stake, etc.

This philosophy dovetails with a concept I’ve been mulling over for about a year now. The idea is that nothing actually exists until there is some frame of reference to compare it to. Consider an environment that’s a complete vacuum – there is nothing in it, no light, no heat, no mass, no time – now draw a square in the vacuum. But in this context, what are “sides?” What is “4?” What is a “right angle?” Nothing has any meaning in this context – even if you successfully drew a square in this environment there would be no other pre-existing shapes to differentiate it from. However, if you were to draw a circle beside that square in empty space, you now have the ability to compare, to differentiate – to define.

Visual tools provide a frame of reference – something that folks can lock on to, and say, “I don’t like that. Your square sucks.” And you know what? That’s fine to say, because what you’ve elicited at that point is a response, a declaration, an individual decision that can help you get to the next decision and the next decision after that. It’s A/B testing for ideas.

This is why visual tools are compelling, but Mike argues that visual tools can also be misleading – if you choose to visually describe only those things which are easy to visualize. He argues that this practice can instill a culture which misses the most important metrics in projects, because humans become fixated on what they can see, and end up trivializing that which they cannot see – “out of sight, out of mind.”

“This is why some project teams misguidedly pay lots of attention to easy to measure metrics like lines of software code written or hours worked yet fail to track things like collaboration and information sharing – that stuff is just difficult to track and influence.“

A million lines of code are useless if they don’t contribute to business objectives. However, collaboration and sharing the right information, at the right time, can help to ensure those lines of code support the business in achieving its defined goals, and that is useful.

This is important for project managers. It’s important for Agile development organizations. It’s important to the business. If the adage that “what cannot be measured, cannot be managed” is true, then there is an implied responsibility for management to carefully define what must be measured first, and only then to define the metrics to measure the “what.” If the thing being measured does not contribute to business objectives, it is a useless metric, regardless of whether or not it’s easy to visualize.

More Stories By Rex Morrow

Rex is the Marketing Director at Datical, a venture-backed software company whose solution, Datical DB, manages and simplifies database schema change management in support of high velocity application releases. Prior to Datical, Rex co-founded Texas Venture Labs, a startup accelerator at the University of Texas, and received his MBA from the McCombs School of Business. Before graduate school, Rex served as a Captain in the U.S. Army, and was awarded two bronze stars during combat deployments in Iraq.

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